Inverarity (inverarity) wrote,
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Book Review: The Zimmermann Telegram, by Barbara Tuchman

The German telegram that propelled America into World War I.


The Zimmermann Telegram

Scribner, 1958, 244 pages



In the dark winter of 1917, as World War I was deadlocked, Britain knew that Europe could be saved only if the United States joined the war. But President Wilson remained unshakable in his neutrality. Then, with a single stroke, the tool to propel America into the war came into a quiet British office. One of countless messages intercepted by the crack team of British decoders, the Zimmermann telegram was a top-secret message from Berlin inviting Mexico to join Japan in an invasion of the United States. Mexico would recover her lost American territories while keeping the U.S. occupied on her side of the Atlantic.

How Britain managed to inform America of Germany's plan without revealing that the German codes had been broken makes for an incredible, true story of espionage, intrigue, and international politics, as only Barbara W. Tuchman could tell it.




I read this book mostly because I was interested in the cryptographic angle. If you've read Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon, you will be familiar with the real-life dilemma underlying the Zimmermann telegram: the British in 1917 had cracked the Germans' diplomatic code and thus were privy to the secret communications Berlin was sending to its ambassadors. When they collect a juicy bit of information they want to act on, how do they do so without revealing to the Germans that their code has been cracked, and thus losing access to future intelligence?

In 1917, the war in Europe was going very badly for the Allies. While they were piling up corpses, America was staying "neutral." Britain desperately wanted America to enter the war. Germany desperately wanted America to stay out of it.

Then German Foreign Secretary, Arthur Zimmermann, sent this telegram to Heinrich von Eckardt, German Ambassador to Mexico:


FROM 2nd from London # 5747.
"We intend to begin on the first of February unrestricted submarine warfare. We shall endeavor in spite of this to keep the United States of America neutral. In the event of this not succeeding, we make Mexico a proposal of alliance on the following basis: make war together, make peace together, generous financial support and an understanding on our part that Mexico is to reconquer the lost territory in Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. The settlement in detail is left to you. You will inform the President of the above most secretly as soon as the outbreak of war with the United States of America is certain and add the suggestion that he should, on his own initiative, invite Japan to immediate adherence and at the same time mediate between Japan and ourselves. Please call the President's attention to the fact that the ruthless employment of our submarines now offers the prospect of compelling England in a few months to make peace." Signed, ZIMMERMANN


The British decoded it and said, "Holy shit, the Yanks will lose it when they see this!" Leading to the problem of how to tell the Yanks, and make them believe it's authentic, while not revealing to the Germans how the Americans got the information.

There is a lot more to the story, and The Zimmermann Telegram is basically a history of how America entered the war. It wasn't just Zimmermann's telegram that did it, and we don't even know for certain that it was the final straw that got President Wilson to abandon neutrality, though Tuchman argues that the evidence points to this being the case. (How could the Germans offering the American Southwest to Mexico while encouraging Japan to invade the West Coast not shatter any hopes of remaining neutral?)

There is quite a bit about the personalities involved, particularly Kaiser Wilhelm and President Woodrow Wilson, who were completely unlike each other except in one respect: they both ignored news they didn't want to hear. It is surprising how little we actually know, according to Tuchman, about what Wilson's true thoughts were and what his decision-making process was in the months leading up to America's entry into the war. But she presents a man who was very, very determined to keep the promise that had gotten him reelected in 1916: "He kept us out of the war." Americans were generally sympathetic to Britain, but there was also a strong pro-German sentiment (encouraged by German agents), and Americans very much did not want to wade into a European bloodbath.

Wilson's stubbornness in sticking to his plan of neutrality while trying to get the two sides to talk peace reaches the point of blind obstinacy. Britain was probably not wrong in thinking that it would take something like the Zimmermann telegram to get him off his moral high horse.

Tuchman wrote The Zimmermann Telegram in 1958; at that time, there were documents dating back to World War I that were still classified. In her preface to the 1985 edition, she noted that some documents had since been declassified that revealed a bit of new information about the decoding of the Zimmermann Telegram, though they didn't materially affect the historical interpretation.

To this day, some information about World War II and a great deal of information about the Cold War remains classified; more of it will be released in coming years. It will be interesting to see how much history changes.



Verdict: Probably the definitive work about one of the deciding events of World War I, at least as far as the U.S. was concerned. One of those small things on which history hinged, but also illustrates how much individual personalities may also have swayed history. Also provides a broad look at America's political and geographical situation in the early 20th century, when the U.S. was still the big, dumb new kid and its borders were not so immutable.

I'm rather surprised no one has ever made a movie about this historical episode.




My complete list of book reviews.
Tags: books, history, non-fiction, reviews
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